15 July, 2013


I have been following Jay-Z’s recent “performance piece” at Pace Gallery in conjunction with the release of his new album Magna Carta…Holy Grail. The event was a video shoot for the song “Picasso Baby” that is featured on the new album. Internationally celebrated performance artist Marina Abramović also took part in this project. Abramović’ has been described as “exploring the physical and mental limits of her being, she has withstood pain, exhaustion, and danger in the quest for emotional and spiritual transformation.” Her work is extraordinary and she truly is one of the most important and iconic performance artists living today.

Jay-Z’s lyrics are appalling and the performance itself was laughably awkward and ridiculous. I reposted an article by Bob Duggan on Big Think’s website “Did Jay-Z Just Kill Performance Art?” in which he quips that “Jay-Z’s foray into the art world reminds me of Andy Warhol’s 1985 guest appearance on The Love Boat.”  

Shortly after posting the article I received a comment from a thoughtful friend not directly affiliated with the art world:

Art and culture are inextricable, so as much as a bruise on the art as Jay-Z's behavior is from a purist perspective ... it is a real bruise that should also be honored or observed for what it is... Does that make any sense from a non-art person?

I started to write her a response on Facebook, and then realized that I needed to write more about the issue, and make it clear what specifically I am objecting to when I criticize this “performance” piece. I am and have been throughout my career deeply supportive of new forms of art, installation, and performance work. My Master’s Thesis was based on this concept. To quote myself on this topic:

When initially presented, new forms of art and installation can incite hostility and derision among art patrons, critics, and general audiences.  New paradigms are unsettling and artistic breakthroughs can threaten belief systems people hold dear to their understanding of the art world and how it functions. Some of the most distinguished and iconic artists in modern history have found notoriety and recognition through years, even decades, of slowly evolving acceptance into the cultural mainstream.

Once labeled charlatans heralding a clear decline in culture, such eminent artists as Theodore Gericault, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso, and Marcel Duchamp incited public fury and scathing criticism in their respective eras for the ground-breaking work they produced. By challenging the conventions of how art is supposed to look and function, artists operating outside that norm encounter a public largely unprepared and unwilling to accept their permutations.

I do not think that Jay-Z’s performance with Abramović is a mind bending artistic breakthrough and I do not believe he is the art world’s next Pablo Picasso (though he believes it to be true, see lyrics below). I am not troubled by the fact that a rapper and performance artist held court at Pace Gallery because they are both wealthy and famous and can make that happen. It’s also another example of a trend of interesting crossovers between art and pop culture (think Wei Wei and Anish Kapoor recently doing renditions of rapper Psy’s “Gangnam Style”).

After giving it more thought following the Facebook post, the real issue is Picasso Baby’s lyrics. Women and art are brutishly debased and denigrated for the sake of Jay-Z’s ego and hunger for power, wealth, and status. The following are just a few choice lines from a lengthy and painfully descriptive song.

I wanna Rothko, no, I wanna brothel
No, I want a wife that fuck me like a prostitute
In a dirty hotel with the fan on the ceiling
All for the love of drug dealing
Marble Floors, gold Ceilings
Oh, what a feeling, fuck it, I want a billion
Jeff Koons balloons, I just wanna blow up
Condos in my condos, I wanna row of
Christie's with my missy, live at the MoMA
See me throning at the Met
Vogueing on these niggas, champagne on my breath, yes
House like the Louvre or the Tate Modern
Because I be going ape at the auction
Oh what a feeling, aw, fuck it, I want a trillion
Sleeping every night next to Mona Lisa
The modern day version with better features
Yellow Basquiat in my kitchen corner
Go ahead lean on that shit Blue, you own it
For you to see, I'm the modern day Pablo, Picasso baby

The acquisition of art has been an indicator of wealth, culture and power for centuries. That has positive and negative ramifications, but the fact that Jay-Z wants loads of famous paintings to line his walls is neither shocking nor destructive. The combination, however, of violence, misogyny, and disregard for the works themselves (encouraging his daughter to “lean on that shit because you own it” referencing a painting by Jean-Michele Basquiat) is idiotic and dishonorable.

In a New Yorker article by Emma Allen, Jay-Z’s art advisor states that “he’s thinking about his relationship to art and to how you want one thing and then you want the next thing and then it comes all the way back around; now he has a family and how he passes on the cultural baggage.” In the same article Abramović said “I love his music, because it’s social issues, it’s political, and really goes to everybody’s heart. It’s so good. It’s like a volcano.” 

With Alanna Heiss, my confusion mounts
In a bizarre twist of personal fate, I discovered that Alanna Heiss was an active participant in this project. Founder of MoMA's P.S.1 and Art on Air, Heiss is one of the three women that comprise my thesis (quoted above). I spent days interviewing her, and endlessly admire her intrepid career and fearless ways. I find myself caught in a strange conundrum. 

So Jay-Z’s lyrics are irony and satire. He is essentially the Stephen Colbert of the rap world. He is so revolutionary and paradigm shifting that I actually missed the profound and complex relationship to the art world and the strategic method by which he passes his cultural baggage to his daughter by telling her to “lean on that shit.” These lyrics go straight to everybody’s heart. No, I am still not buying it.

Bob Duggan gives Jay-Z entirely too much credit to be the herald of the death of performance art. I do, however, still agree with his underlying message that I posted this morning.  “Assuming that she’s heard the lyrics, it saddens me that Marina Abramović’s cooperated with “Picasso Baby” after all she’s done for women in art. More than anything else, it’s Jay-Z’s lyrics’ misogyny and disrespect for art itself that will kill performance art purely by association.”

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